Computer Consciousness and the Singularity

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Computer Consciousness and the Singularity

As you listen or read, you are not only conscious of the words being expressed, but you are also aware of that consciousness — and perhaps that's what consciousness is:  an awareness of your awareness.

Sounds simple enough, but imagine designing a machine that has the same capability.  Such a machine would have the ability to actually "think and invent," not just "calculate, store and retrieve."  As such, it would be able to design and build even faster, more capable machines that would do the same.  At that point, technological progress enabled by smart machines would be so rapid that humans would be relegated to a peripheral role.

Beyond that point, which many call "the Singularity," machine consciousness and human consciousness could theoretically merge.  Those who accept this vision believe that eventually, we will abandon our flesh-and-blood bodies entirely and upload our digitized psyches, including whatever gives us individual identity and consciousness, into computers.  There, we will dwell happily forever in cyberspace.

The Trends editors previously addressed this topic.  Today, we're examining some of the dramatic progress that's been made in computing and artificial intelligence.  We're also taking a look at the latest thinking about so-called "strong artificial intelligence" and the assumptions behind the idea of computer consciousness.

Let's start by reviewing some key history:

John Von Neumann, one of the pioneers of computer architecture, originally coined the term "Singularity" to describe the point beyond which progress is so rapid that for all practical purposes, it is infinite.  The rate of technological innovation has been speeding up throughout history, and currently it is doubling about every 10 years.  That broader rate of advance is eclipsed by the dizzying pace of improvements in IT.  By every measure — including speed, capacity, bandwidth, and price-performance — the power of IT is now doubling about every 12 months.

As we acknowledged earlier, a small but growing group within the world's technological elite has emerged over the past 15 years or so with an all-encompassing new vision of "the Singularity" and the world that lies beyond it.  This vision, variously termed Singularitarian or "transhumanist," is being most articulately popularized by inventor Ray Kurzweil.

As Kurzweil sees it, the Singularity will launch an era in which our intelligence will become trillions of times more powerful than it is today.  He asserts that in this new world, there will be no distinction between human and machine, or between physical reality and virtual reality...

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